Re: “We must protect the rights of those with whom we disagree”

This letter is a response to the March 9 letter by Maziar Sharifikhah.

It seems like somewhere along the way, freedom of speech has been conflated with freedom from consequence. It has been confused with the right to infringe on the rights of others.

Yes, it is within their freedom of speech for pro-lifers to compare abortion to murder if they so please, but it is not okay to push it on other students of this campus with propogandic and horrific imagery. This not only crosses the line of what “free speech” defends, but unfortunately surpasses it by leaps and bounds. And yes, we must protect the rights of those with whom we disagree, but discussion surrounding yesterday’s protests moves beyond individual opinions about whether one is a pro-life or pro-choice. Because yesterday, students’ right to the safety of their mental health was violated.

Everyone deserves freedom of speech, but we must know how to exercise that right respectfully. It can not be at the cost of a young Jewish woman on her way to her next class, having to walk past signs comparing women who have had or will have abortions to Nazis, with photos of concentration camps, swastikas and yellow Stars of David.

The notion that free speech is somehow okay, even if it compromises the safety of others, is a delusion. We pretend that violence must be physical. It doesn’t. Words and images are powerful and affect people's psyches — to deny that is ignorant. To be in a position to defend free speech and denounce the “political correctness” that frustrates and apparently silences the voices of the far right, demands that the speaker be in a position of privilege.

At what point do we stop pretending that all opinions are created equally and deserve equal treatment?

Let us stop pretending that words don’t carry weight and that the voices that get amplified don’t largely originate in existing hegemony. While you argue for freedom of speech on the grounds of its inherent legality and importance to democracy, we would ask who does this kind of free speech protect in the end? Let us stop scapegoating this concept as reason enough to perpetuate bigotry and hate, and let us stop pretending that the university is responsible for protecting opinions that set out to deny the choices and mental health of students on this campus. Maybe “freedom of speech” as defined in the dictionary is inclusive of hate speech, but maybe it shouldn’t be in our society. We would argue that making bigotry unwelcome at UBC is not a bad thing. At what point do we stop pretending that all opinions are created equally and deserve equal treatment?

The pro-life demonstrations occurring on campus this week are not defensible because they are based in violence and propaganda, and are disrespectful not only to those who have had abortions, but to the victims of genocide whose images have been appropriated for shock value. This perspective is not academia and this malice is not welcome at an institution of higher learning — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Protecting pro-life protesters in the name of freedom of speech and the right to differing opinions is inherently ironic as the aim of the pro-life movement is to end the right to difference of choice.

As one Facebook commenter put it: “The thing with freedoms ... is that your rights to them end where someone else’s begin.” Pro-choice advocates are not anti-life — they understand the nature of individual freedom. Using the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” positions them as opposing viewpoints worthy of equal protection and exemplifies how powerful words are in this argument. Pro-choicers are not pro-abortion, but pro-lifers are anti-choice. They actively aim to restrict people’s agency over their own bodies and their rhetorics historically position those seeking a valid form of health care as targets of violence.

The university has no responsibility to protect free speech at the cost of the safety of students on campus. Demonstrations that compromise student health — mental or physical — have no place at UBC.

Hana Golightly, Mahtab Laghaei and Rosemary Hu are students at UBC-Vancouver.